Towards a New “Digital Materiality”

by Marie-Ange Brayer, Curator, Head of the department Design et Industrial Prospective, Mnam/Cci-Centre Pompidou
Publish date
Jan. 3, 2017

The development of computers led to radical transformations that have altered the practice of today’s architects, designers and artists. Be it sound or matter, digital space generates new forms. Marie-Ange Brayer addresses the questions of these mutations here while elaborating an overview of research in digital technologies in the fields of design and architecture.

Achim Menges, HygroScope - Meteorosensitive Morphology, 2012 © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Georges Meguerditchian

Today, the digital ecosystem of art offers itself to the fields of life sciences, synthetic biology, neurosciences, artificial intelligence, computer sciences, cognitive sciences. The development of computers led to radical transformations that have altered the practice of today’s architects, designers and artists. The introduction of digital tools beginning in the 1990s completely redefined the conditions of conception and production, now assisted by computer. Today, the processes of digital simulation concern all domains: digital simulations of landscapes, 3D simulation of space, 3D simulation of sound space. In the field of architecture, construction phases can now be simulated with a digital model (Building Information Modeling, parametric models with information for construction). 3D digital modeling encompasses every phase of design and production, superseding traditional instruments for representation. This modeling provides information in real-time that are sequenced according to the production phase. There are no longer any boundaries in the passage from virtual to real, but a global network of digital processes and materials.

The use of digital tools has led to a veritable mutation of materiality: mutation of materials, mutation of forms, mutation of space. Digital simulations have triggered an evolving dimensionality of objects, of materials, within a digitized space. Automated production, be it via 3D printing or robotics, is reflected in neurodesign (application of cognitive sciences and the computation of creative artistic processes). Be it sound or matter, digital space generates new forms that raise multiple questions. This new “digital materiality” has created a typology of objects that didn’t previously exist, for which 3D printing is one of the common denominators. On a scale from micro (printing living cells) to macro (printing full-scale architectural elements), from the visible to the infra-visible, additive manufacturing raises multiple questions that touch our daily lives, the industrial world, and research. The designer François Brument, one of the first to use 3D printing in France, created a laboratory that develops new generative methods for design and production. In 2010, he created, with the assistance of IRCAM, the Topophonie project with Roland Cahen and Diemo Schwartz based on generative systems that combine sounds and forms, making it possible to create a work in which the algorithms for sound and voice generate 3D printed vases.

What is the status of the author in an era of automation of the creative act? What is the status of this object “printed” in 3D: an object for daily use, a technological object, a work of art, a design object, an architectural prototype? How can we explain is its generalization to every field of manufacturing in the digital age? 3D printing formats a new materiality, from the bio-printing of living materials to materials lighter than air. The reproduction of objects gave way to their replication through 3D printing, which, in turn, gave way to the programming of matter via the hybridization of physical and computational worlds. Today, objects can be completely (re)created; the materials, possibly augmented, programmable; soon, they will be able to program themselves in a dynamic time-space. Generative methods used in architecture and design employ a systemic approach that aims to interact with the scale of the material itself.

In the United States, the MIT MediaLab brings together the fields of design and neurosciences: the science of materials with computer sciences. “Materials are the new software” says Neri Oxman whose laboratory— Mediated Matter—just developed a 3D printing technique for molten glasse with the objective of using it on a large scale for architecture. MIT’s Tangible Media Group develops research on evolving materials  (Programmable Materials), while the Self-Assembly Lab with Skylar Tibbits studies new synthetic materials from biology and computer science that should lead to a real “sustainable” architecture. In Paris, EnsadLab at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs carries out research on intelligent materials in their program “Responsive Matter”. The Eindhoven Design Academy is an incubator of young designers using 3D printing technology. In 2015, the young designer Lilian van Daal designed a seat for Volvo, entirely made using wood 3D printing based on biometric forms in a sustainable approach. Rather than gather a multitude of materials, she created a seat using generative methods applied to the material’s scale.

This research acknowledges another relationship with time. We are now projected in a single temporality, that of the present, as there are no longer any limits between the processes of conception and fabrication. A new materiality has emerged from these gaps, arising from the hollow like an “inter-dimensionality” of objects generated by 3D printing technologies. The Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) at MIT recently perfected printed hydraulic robots that, through multi-material 3D printing, can print solid and liquid materials together thereby creating a new materiality, new previously unknown objects that don’t fall into any category, neither hard nor soft, neither solid nor liquid.

Printed hydraulic Robots Project

 In London, the Bartlett School, University College develops advanced research in connection with robotics and the biotechnology field (Marcos Cruz, EcologicStudio). 3D printing technologies, coupled with those of robotics, have revolutionized the domain of design and fabrication, giving rise to a “non-standard” architecture announced as early as 2003 in an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou (Architectures non standard, curator F. Migayrou). It is in 2005 that the ETH Zürich innovates via the foundation of robotic laboratories with the architects Gramazio & Köhler, the first to talk about a new “digital materiality” and use automated tools in the production of prototypes. “The robot connects the computer’s digital reality with the material reality of constructed architecture. From now on, we will no longer draw the final form that will be produced, but the production process,” declared Gramazio & Köhler. In the Netherlands, the TU Delft, the technology university, concentrates its research on the fabrication of architectural prototypes assisted by robots, just like at the IAAC (Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia) in Barcelona. In the Netherlands, the designer Joris Laarman has begun the production of a metal bridge in Amsterdam; the bridge is printed entirely in 3D with the MX3D robot and a new software program: Autodesk. At ICD  (Institute for Computational Design) in Stuttgart, Achim Menges is exploring the performance potential of materials via a computational method of architecture. The Elytra Filament Pavilion, made of carbon fibers currently presented at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, associates biometric research and robotic manufacturing. The Digital Knowledge department (Christian Girard, Pierre Cutellic) at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Paris-Malaquais is also developing an advanced research program on new digital processes of production for architecture.

From tools for the lab to creation, from creation to application in an industrial field, research in universities, design and architecture schools, are all engaged in this computational milestone for conception and production. In 2005, the first printer RepRap, low cost and open source, was created. Today, designers and architects install their own labs, create their own machines to print large-scale ceramics. Open source practices have modified designers’ customs: Joris Laarman put his Maker Chair online; the files can be downloaded and modified to create the chair at home or in a FabLab. FabLab community platforms have provided a new dimension to the prototype that is no longer the first example in a series, in the era of “non-standard”, it is a part of a horizontal process where each object is individualized and where everyone can be a creator.

Photo 2: François Brument, Ammar Eloueini, Chaise Fab #71, 2007 © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Georges Meguerditchian.
Photo 3: Neri Oxman, Remora, 2012 © Centre Pompidou, Mnam-Cci/Philippe Migeat